Audrey Young

Political editor Audrey Young blogs from Parliament

Setchell reports increase concerns

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There is some disturbing new information in the reports released today around the sacking of Madeleine Setchell as communications manager at the Ministry for the Environment.
The Don Hunn report gives greater cause for concern than we had before.
1. It didn't happen once. It happened twice.
What we know now is that after getting the boot because her partner is John Key's press secretary, she discussed getting a job with her former employers at the Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry. And worse still, the chief executive, Murray Sherwin, then went to the Minister, Jim Anderton, to ask him what he thought!
In the infuriatingly understated way in which the State Services Commissioner, Mark Prebble, issues criticism, he says "I do have reservations about the decision to consult the minister."
How about: "It was wrong, it should never have happened, and I will be telling all chief executives that in order that it doesn't happen again." How about a bit of censure?
In the event, Anderton said he would be uncomfortable with Setechell.
2.Exceptionally annoyed
We learn that Benson-Pope's former adviser Steve Hurring told Logan that the minister was "exceptionally annoyed" with the appointment of Setchell, stronger language than has been used before.
3. What Logan told Setchell about Benson-Pope
We learned for the first time that Hugh Logan, the chief executive of Ministry for the Environment, admitted to Madeleine Setchell that [former] Minster for the Environment David Benson-Pope Minister would not work with her.
This is what the report says about a meeting he had with Setchell on May 31 when Logan told her she could not remain in her job.

ie Don Hunn's words.
"She asked the CE to go back to the minister and tell him that he (the CE) had confidence in her. However, the CE said that was not an option. Ms Setchell told the investigation that at this point the CE said the minister was free to choose who he will, or will not, work with. `I asked (the CE ) if he was saying the minister would not work with me. He said yes'."
Despite this evidence, we are still expected to believe that Benson-Pope's view of Setchell played no significant part in his decision.
Prebble went on ad nauseam this morning about how there was no evidence in the Hunn report that that were the case - as if there would be. I'm sorry but even if Hugh Logan genuinely believes BP's view had no bearing on his decision, he is genuinely kidding himself.
4. What prescient Dr Prebble told Logan
We learn for the first time that Logan's boss Mark Prebble, advised him not to talk to Benson-Pope about the employment of Madeleine Setchell. What's more we learn that Prebble believed that Setchell could have kept her job as communications manager and the conflict be managed.
Logan ignored the advice not to talk to BP and took him aside at an outing they were having together in Hamilton which is where BP told him he would be less free and frank whenever Setchell was in his office. To recap on the sacking: it wasn't the actual conversation Logan had but Benson-Pope's denial of it to journalists that led to him being forced out of cabinet. Now we learn that Logan was advised not to even discuss it with the minister.
The fact that Prebble advised Logan not to talk to BP makes it all the more amazing that Prebble can't remember the conversation in which Logan tells him he had. You'd surely be thinking "you bloody idiot!". But Prebble insists he doesn't and I have enough trust in him to believe him. Maybe he thinks "you bloody idiot" so often in his job that nothing stood out on that occasion.
5. More memory loss
We learn that not only did Prebble forget having been told by Logan about that conversation, but Benson Pope cannot recall it at all and that when Benson-Pope told the House about it, it was based on Logan's recollection.
Hunn's words: "The minister assures me that his explanation to the House was based on what he had been advised the CE could recall of their conversation at Hamilton Airport. The Minister himself has no independent recollection of the meeting."
My words: Benson-Pope lost his job over a conversation he can't remember with a person who was advised not to have the conversation at all."
What a mess. The inherent weakness in the report is that Don Hunn does not make recommendations. He has essentially carried out the work of a private investigator with commission of inquiry powers and enlarged on the facts. The conclusions are drawn by Dr Prebble who is smart enough to have meted out censure on Logan and himself.
This is an important inquiry. It is not about Madeleine Setchell but the whole public service and expectations of civil servants and their masters. It won't be the last word.

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